Assume Nothing
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Assume Nothing by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine August 2002

I first learned of the alternative translation of the word ‘assume' during an Odd Couple conversation between Oscar and Felix many years ago. During the following years, and in the world of business in particular, I only became more familiar with the danger of making assumptions. Today, I believe that the costs of making incorrect assumptions are the greatest in the training arena, both in the classroom and on the job.

I first became aware of how incorrect my own assumptions were about how well my students understood my training back in 1992. I had just taken my seven supervisors through a two-day training course on statistical process control (SPC), and I had assumed that they had at least grasped the more salient concepts of this process control methodology. Little did I know that several of the people in the group understood little of what I had covered, and that they were too fearful of losing their jobs to admit it.

Our location had decided to become part of a local math and English literacy effort through a local community college at about the same time as we had decided to present the SPC training. The initial phase of the literacy project involved assessing the levels of math and English literacy for all of the employees at our site. In the process of doing so, we discovered that several of our supervisors were well below the desired tenth grade level for both subjects, and that two of the seven supervisors could barely read or understand basic math concepts at all.

In short, because of the assumptions I had made as a trainer about my students and their levels of knowledge coming into the course, I wasted both my time and theirs. Worse yet, I had created a new layer of fear between them and the company. Now they were being asked to use concepts they currently had no way of understanding, let alone figuring out. During the following weeks and years, I only began to wonder more about how many other trainers were making the same mistake on a repeated basis.

When I arrived at my current employer a little over a year ago, I was presented with both a challenge and a benefit that I had not been expecting – an international workforce. The work ethic of this group of people was unparalleled to any I worked with the past. Unfortunately, the level of English and math literacy with this group was also low, but not because of a lack of intelligence. To put it simply, almost one half of my production crew was not familiar with English phrases, concepts, or jargon.

Because of my past experiences, I knew that we had to address this challenge before moving on to learning about other high performance workplace concepts such as process control, teamwork, and performance measurement. We partnered with a local group to begin providing English as a second language (ESL) courses. After just the first class, we were made aware of two incorrect assumptions that we were probably making. First of all, these people were not simply production workers – in their own countries, they had been teachers themselves or they had gone to college for at least a couple of years. Secondly, several of them did not know the Roman alphabet, which in turn invalidated most of the job aids we had put in place to help them do their jobs correctly.

When I took the time to reflect back on both events as indicators of training system performance, I began to notice a striking similarity. In both cases, I had assumed that these people were for the most part like myself. I had assumed that they understood what I understood, and they had learned most of the same basic things in life that I had. Once again I had been shown that my assumptions were wrong. My trainees were more different than similar to me – they learned differently, they perceived what I said differently, and they often came away from any interaction with me with largely different understandings of the messages I was trying to send.

The key learning this time for me however relates more to working with a largely ‘traditional' American workforce. We tend to assume that people are like us to an even greater degree if those people look like us. In turn, we rarely give a second thought to whether or not our fellow Americans are really understanding us or not when we train them, share information in meetings with them, or speak to them one-on-one. I would suspect that a high percentage of our messages are either misinterpreted or largely misunderstood because of this lack of awareness.

As industrial engineers, we are responsible for improving both large and small work systems. We are often also responsible for training others to use a new process or tool. When we do this, I wonder how often we really take the time to consider the language or other interpretive barriers that may exist, the differences in mental models that we may have, or the differences in learning styles that most definitely exist. In most cases, it usually seems easier to simply proceed as we have in the past, teaching others in the manner that we prefer to be taught. In most cases, we usually waste a lot of time and money as well if we choose to be honest with ourselves.

If people are fearful of losing their jobs, or even missing out on a promotion because they ‘do not understand', they will be reluctant to tell us, especially in the presence of others. We cannot depend on their open and honest feedback to help us make the necessary adjustments. Instead, we must open our eyes, ears, and minds to the potential for being misunderstood, and be willing to significantly modify our approaches to working with others in order to make sure that our messages are understood.

Getting out of this dilemma that I assume most of us are in begins with creating an environment of openness and trust. This is accomplished by asking questions more than giving commands, spending time with others to learn more about their perspectives, and using sound evaluative tools to determine if our messages are getting translated in the manner that we intended to be. We also must learn to personally challenge our own assumptions by questioning ourselves.

I personally rely on a quote from Socrates to help me do this. This simple quote is “The only thing I know is that I don't know it all.” If you can learn to handle the uncertainty that embracing this quote will present you with, you can also open your mind to a whole new set of learning possibilities. Of course, it never hurts to keep the Odd Couple translation of the word ‘assume' in mind as well. Do you understand?


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“The only thing I know is that I do not know it all.” -- Socrates

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